A year ago, Gardner and I began developing what we called an “alternative subversive advising curriculum” for first year students. Like many schools I suspect, ours was struggling with how to create an advising program that students would find value in. Gardner and I came upon the idea of using advising meetings to host a meta-conversation about higher education, and last year we made a good start at finding appropriate discussion topics.
I am now working on an idea for the second advising meeting this year, to be held in early October. The purpose of this post is to solicit your feedback on the idea, which I describe below.
I plan to start the session by reminding the students that at the first meeting of this year, I asserted that freshman year should be more than 13th grade. What I plan to do then is explore the extent to which their experience to date has confirmed or refuted that assertion. I’m going to do this by asking them to write for a few minutes and then discuss the following questions:
* Write down a list of all your courses.
* Which one is the most like high school? Why?
* Which one is the least like high school? Why?
* Which one(s) do you not find interesting at all? What is your strategy for dealing with your lack of interest?
These questions are preliminary to what I really want the students to consider and wrestle with:
* What should a student’s responsibilities be when they take a college course? Is a student responsible for anything more than coming to class and completing the assignments?
Can any of you suggest a short text I could assign in advance to inspire student thinking about this fundamental question?
– – – – – – – –
The first day of class for my FSEM, which is on globalization, I asked students to rate their interest in the topic on a scale of 1 to 5, where 1 indicated indifference and 5 indicated passion. One student spoke up, saying
I have to tell you that I have no interest at all in globalization. The only reason I signed up for this course is that it had the last open seat of any FSEM when I registered. [Taking an FSEM is required in our new general education curriculum.] I hope you will give me credit for honesty.
While not responding to her explicitly, I stated what I had planned to say to introduce the course, that this course was not about grades or credits, but rather about genuine intellectual inquiry on a topic. That it was more about exploring questions than finding answers. And that anyone taking this course to satisfy a requirement, or anyone not interested in globalization likely would find this course frustrating.
The student’s admission unnerved me. Since then, I have been pondering what to do about it. It is as if having her in the course will inhibit the rest of us from building the genuine intellectual experience that I have planned. Still it’s unfair to put all the blame on her. What about other students who may have felt the same way, but didn’t admit it? Her public admission may have simply made it harder for me to maintain the fiction that my students are genuinely interested in making this course something bigger than a requirement. That fiction is important. Consider how we teach children to eat vegetables. If I claim that vegetables are tasty, and my children humor me by eating them, at some point they will discover that I’m speaking the truth. But if they don’t humor me and they don’t try them, they probably won’t.
I’ve decided to treat this student as a challenge. Can I convince her that school can be something more than a set of requirements? At present I am not particularly hopeful, but I’m going forward anyway.
– – – – – – –
It seems only fair to conclude the advising meeting with the following question:
* What should a teacher’s responsibilities be when they teach a course? Should the teacher be responsible for more than presenting the material on the subject of the course and testing students on their recall of the material?
Margaret Soltan at University Diaries spoke to this recently:
The point of college – the point of professors – is to spark in students an awareness of an intellectual world …; it’s to take students largely unaware of the depths and delights of serious reflection and inaugurate them into it. Of course students are free to take this or leave this; but the fundamental point of higher education is to display it, to seduce students toward it.